PPB_0317_ProductResponsibilitySamsung Electronics Co. announced in January that it had completed its investigation of explosive lithium-ion batteries that led it to recall nearly three million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, resulting in a $5 billion problem for the company. Samsung reportedly devoted more than 700 staff members to investigate why the battery packs overheated, caught fire or exploded.  After months of investigation and tests of nearly 200,000 phones and 30,000 batteries, Samsung blamed the overheating batteries on two causes:

  1. A bad design of one version of batteries made by Samsung’s own factory caused them to short-circuit and overheat (i.e., too much battery crammed into too tight of a space); and
  1. A lack of adequate quality control processes during the production of other batteries (made by a different factory), and exacerbated by Samsung’s rushed production which caused a different batch of defects.

Why is Samsung’s Note 7 fiasco relevant to the promotional products industry?

The answer is simple. As an industry, we supply and distribute millions of lithium-ion battery-powered products (e.g., power banks, Bluetooth speakers, wireless earbuds and other tech products) each year that end up in consumers’ hands, in their pockets or in their ears. These tech products are some of the most popular promotional items for end buyers to market their valuable brands. Therefore, we need to ensure, and assure our clients, that our power banks and other tech products are safely designed, made, tested and certified to prevent injuries, property damage and costly (and reputation-damaging) safety recalls.

How do we protect ourselves when sourcing power banks and similar items?

Buy only tested and certified products. Rachel Koenig, president of supplier AP Specialties (PPAI 230356), a leading supplier of power banks and other tech products, believes that “buying only products that have been properly tested and certified by a recognized lab such as UL is one way to safely source these items. We learned the hard way a few years ago when we had a power bank recall of our own. We decided, as painful and difficult as it was, to conduct the recall after we received three reported incidents of overheating with that product and we wanted to do the right thing. That recall set our company back and damaged our reputation, so we determined then that going forward we were only going to source products such as power banks if they are UL tested and certified. This decision was clearly the wisest one we could make to protect our clients and end users because of the many stringent standards and tests that the products have to pass to ensure that the design, materials, components and assembly of the products are satisfactory before they can receive the UL certification mark on them.”

LaTanya Schwalb, senior project engineer for UL’s Consumer Technology Division, shared numerous insights about lithium battery safety during her education session on power bank safety at The PPAI Expo in Las Vegas in January. She informed the audience that safety testing is only voluntary for lithium-ion batteries and power banks sold in the United States, whereas testing and CE (Conformité Européenne) certification is mandatory in Europe. Schwalb suggested that suppliers should always ask their factories for testing under applicable standards such as UL 2056 for power banks or UL 2054 or IEC 62133, 2nd Edition for batteries.

Furthermore, Schwalb stated that “if the proper testing has been done, then the factory will be able to provide the documentation along with a UL File Number, or other reference if the testing was done by another Nationally Recognized Test Laboratory (NRTL). Companies can always go to the UL website at www.ul.com and search our online Product Certification database, using the search terms ‘power bank’ to see if the manufacturer has had the products evaluated by UL for safety.”

In addition to requiring proper testing and certification, what other factors should be considered when sourcing lithium-ion battery-powered items? 

Have a rigorous factory vetting process. “In addition to proper UL testing and certification of the products, uncompromising vendor selection is vital to our success and having confidence in our products,” says Koenig. “We have been approached by many power bank and tech product factories over the past few years, but after careful reviews of numerous factors such as their qualifications, safety policies and procedures, production facilities, product quality and compliance documentation, we continue to buy our power banks from only one source because it’s the only factory we’ve vetted that meets AP Specialties’ high standards for quality and requirements for UL testing and certification. Our top distributor clients rely on our tough sourcing standards so they can feel protected.”

UL’s Schwalb agrees that factory vetting is vital. “One key is to ensure that you source your power banks from a reliable manufacturer. That manufacturer must have gone through the process of having their products evaluated for safety and they are then able to produce the proper documentation to verify their safety claims,” says Schwalb. After its Note 7 investigation, a Samsung executive readily admitted that they did not have the proper quality controls in their factories to prevent the defects that caused their batteries to explode. Due to these quality and safety control problems, Samsung announced that they have since created an “8-Point Battery Safety Check” process, which includes several improvements to their factories’ processes for enhanced quality control and expanded in-house and third-party testing of the batteries.

Comply with battery transport safety requirements. Due to the potential risks of lithium-ion batteries and power banks overheating and causing fires during transit (aside from a passenger simply trying to board a plane with a banned Galaxy Note 7 in his pocket or bag), there are various tests under UN 38.3 that are part of mandatory shipping requirements of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Recent changes to ICAO/IATA Air Regulations have limited the state of charge to 30 percent maximum for commercial shipping of lithium-ion batteries on both passenger and cargo aircraft. In addition, beginning January 1 of this year, all packages that contain lithium-ion and lithium metal cells and batteries contained in equipment must be labeled with the Lithium Battery Handling Label. Lithium-ion batteries are considered Hazardous Materials, so we must also focus on packaging, labeling and transportation to be compliant with these products.

“We must adhere with all DOT and IATA rules for packaging, labeling and shipping of our power banks to ensure that our products arrive safely and without any issues so our customers’ orders will not be delayed for any reason,” says Koenig.

On the testing side, UL’s Schwalb strongly urges suppliers to “ask your factories to provide documentation to verify that the power banks will conform with the proper safeguards and standards for shipping and transportation of power banks under UN 38.3.”

Information, Resources And Education

The many testing requirements for lithium-ion batteries, power banks and other tech products can be confusing. Where can you learn more about lithium-ion battery safety and other product responsibility best practices?

PPAI Website: The PPAI Product Responsibility Action Group (PRAG) has developed and published many resources such as Product Responsibility Best Practices, case studies, articles, recorded webinars and presentations, and UL Standard Product Requirement documents, for members to access and use. Simply go to the product responsibility page at www.ppai.org/inside-ppai to find these online member resources. There are several Product Responsibility Best Practices specifically written on lithium-ion batteries and power banks available on the PPAI website and in the PPAI Product Responsibility Summit binders; see below.

PPAI Webinars and Education Sessions: Sign up for PPAI product responsibility webinars and attend education sessions on various topics at The PPAI Expo and Expo East to gain valuable teaching and tools to help you gain practical insights in the product and sourcing compliance areas.

PPAI Product Responsibility Summit: PPAI holds its highly acclaimed annual Product Responsibility Summit to educate attendees on the latest developments in the five essential pillars of a robust product responsibility program. Every year, each attendee receives an updated, comprehensive binder filled with helpful tools, guidelines, written best practices, and sample policies and procedures to support their product responsibility programs. This year, the Summit will be held September 17-19, 2017 in Newport Beach, California. Additional details will become available soon.

Lithium-ion battery-powered products are popular promotional products that can bring your company additional sales revenues, but always bear in mind that not all tech products have been properly designed, made or tested. If proper safeguards are not followed, these products can result in property damage or personal injury, recalls or worse. Don’t get burned … buy only from trusted sources and verify, verify and verify again.

Leeton Lee has been in the consumer products industry for nearly 25 years, starting as in-house legal counsel at The Walt Disney Company where, for seven years, he oversaw the business and legal affairs of various Disney retail and marketing units and helped establish Disney’s highly respected Corporate Product Integrity Department. After Disney, he served in various general counsel positions and has created and managed product compliance departments for other leading marketing and promotional products companies. Lee serves as a product safety consultant to the promotional products industry through his company ComplyBox, and is co-chair of PPAI’s Product Responsibility Action Group (PRAG).  He holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Pepperdine University, and a law degree from Loyola Law School-Los Angeles.

Nine Safe Sourcing Tips

It is vital for all of us to understand the complex regulations surrounding the making, testing and shipping of potentially dangerous lithium-ion battery-powered products. Our clients rely on us to sell safe products, or the consequences can be quite serious. So, in a nutshell, what can we do to prevent being “burned” by poorly made lithium-ion battery-powered products?

  1. Carefully screen your vendors and factories and establish your quality and safety expectations.
  2. Ensure that the product is properly designed and use third-party labs to review.
  3. Verify all raw materials, components and subassemblies used in the product.
  4. Require safety features such as regulators, safety circuits and fuses.
  5. Test the finished products to verify the factory’s product safety claims, using a Nationally Recognized Test Laboratory such as UL.
  6. Obtain copies of all testing and certification verifications from your vendors.
  7. Ensure that all packaging, labeling, instructions and warnings are complete and accurate.
  8. Follow all applicable transportation and labeling requirements for lithium battery products.
  9. Consult with industry experts, such as your test lab, for guidance.